The SFF Librarian Reviews: Dark Breakers by C.S.E. Cooney

SFF Librarian Reviews

Jeremy Brett

As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.

Let’s explore strange new worlds together!

Under Review:

Dark Breakers. C.S.E. Cooney. Mythic Delirium Books, February 15, 2022.

There are few authors that merrily dance so close to the borders of Fairyland as C.S.E. Cooney. Should the mortal world ever establish diplomatic relations with the fae, Cooney, whose warm writing beautifully merges the otherworldliness and sheer strangeness of fairykind with the rich and familiar emotions of humanity, would make an excellent ambassador… for either side of the line. And her work’s inherent between-ness has never been on fuller display than in the new collection Dark Breakers, which forms both a prequel and sequel to her 2019 novella Desdemona and The Deep.

With Desdemona, Cooney proved her literary brilliance in the depiction of the world of bright young thing Desdemona Mannering, one of the great social animals stalking the city of Seafall. The stories in Dark Breakers take place in the same setting: a human world reminiscent of the Gilded Age that overlaps with magical underworlds ruled by fairies and goblins. Cooney made Desdemona a redoubtable and ultimately redemptive heroine, who went from spoiled, superficial little rich girl to a brave avenger who travels to the lower kingdom to right the wrongs done by her plutocratic father against his exploited and objectified workers. Part of what made Desdemona so fascinating was Cooney’s seamless insertion of a Upton Sinclair-like social justice mentality into what was, essentially, Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market. The idea of “industrial fantasy” is not new; we have seen it done well by writers like Michael Swanwick and Alix Harrow. But threading together thematic disparities effectively is never easy; it is a testament to Cooney’s worldbuilding and skill at narrative construction that this came off in Desdemona not as a clumsy gimmick but as two puzzle pieces slotting together smoothly. Dark Breakers lacks that overt social justice aspect (aside from “Salissay’s Laundries”), yet it still showcases a real concern throughout with people (whether human or fae) being exploited or used as instruments in someone else’s lives or ambitions.

The genius of Cooney’s work, in both Desdemona and the stories of Dark Breakers, lies not only in her careful delineation of each individual world, but also in exploring where and how those worlds meet, merge, and ultimately affect each other.  With her choice of central setting for the stories making up Dark Breakers, Cooney makes the liminal literal. Breaker House (modeled on the famous summer residence of the Vanderbilts) is a site for parties and the general Seafall social swirl. However, it is also the locus for the Veil Between Worlds, situated in all three worlds at once (Day Breakers in Athe, Dark Breakers in the Valwode, and Breakers Beyond in Bana) and one of the last places where the realms meet. It is in these meetings, in the eruption of magic and passions, the power struggles of the gentry and goblinkin, where the stories’ action is made.

The first and longest tale, “The Breaker Queen”, is set before Desdemona, and chronicles the romance of artist Elliot Howell – one of Desdemona’s glittering array of friends – and Nyx the Nightwalker, a gentry queen who meets Elliot during a brief visit to the mortal world. Any visit of the gentry to Athe is inherently dangerous, toxic to the gentry in the emotional power the mortal world generates.  As Cooney notes, “Athe was less like water than it was like a sparkling wine, thrilling and enthralling to whomever imbibed it, but in effect, still a low dose of poison, disguised to neither look nor taste like poison.” The story centers around the growing passion between the two, and here the reader sees Cooney’s characteristic masterful blending of emotional resonance and puckish humor, wrapped together with a subplot concerning the deadly political machinations that drench the Valwode. 

Oddly-directed passion forms the heart of the second tale, “The Two Paupers”, based around writer Analise Field and Ana’s flatmate/tormented sculptor Gideon Alderwood. Ana and Gideon “enjoy”, if that is the word, an intense love-hate relationship, and at the center of “Two Paupers” lies the secret behind Gideon’s desperate attempts to push away the woman he so dearly loves but treats so contemptuously in public. And the tale’s outcome leads indirectly to the book’s final tale,“Susurra to the Moon”, in which two parts of the Volwode ruling triumvirate – one gentry, one human-turned-gentry, discuss the Moon. This story, perhaps even more than the rest, is filled with Cooney’s own particular brand of wit, infectious humor, and sheer delight in the magic and power of words. 

The most affecting of the stories is “Salissay’s Laundries”, a journalistic expose written by reporter Salissay Dimaguiba. Salissay is a Nellie Bly/Lois Lane-style investigative crusader, going undercover to expose injustice and corruption; in this case, at the Seafall City Laundries (Athe’s equivalent of the notorious Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, those secretive institutions where thousands of “fallen women” were essentially jailed for life, exploited, and abused, many dying and being buried in unmarked graves). Salissay, a skeptic who does not believe in the gentry or magic, masquerades as a woman touched by gentry and seeking shelter. What she finds once admitted to the Laundries is truly horrific – the litany of crimes she exposes is sadly familiar to us here in the real world: exploitation, degradation, and the objectification of innocent people. Again, Cooney has infused fantastical tales of magic and fairy folk with a deep social compassion, which gives this tale an extra frisson of realism and relevance. The story also demonstrates the sad and enduring truth that in worlds both real and fantastic, when different cultures and ways of living come up against each other, the result is not always the grand passion of “The Breaker Queen”: sometimes, the outcome is bitter, fearful tragedy.

Cooney is the Mistress of the Liminal; her words and imagery thrive in the borderlands, the middle spaces where wildly different visions of life and creation, different understandings of responsibility and obligation, and different cultures, politics, and systems of power come together in interactions strange, beautiful, and dangerous. That combination of spices, that blending of tones, is the very heart of Cooney’s enterprise in these tales, symbolized most clearly by Breaker House in its tripartite multifaceted identities. There is nothing in this world that is a single thing, Cooney tells us, nothing that does not touch and affect and imbue another thing.

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

Transparency Statement

This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020; this entry was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB did not arrange a review copy.

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